06 May 2010

Understanding Baking, Part I

Whenever I'm at your house for une petite soirée, the dessert table features an obligatory tray of lemon bars, as if the Minneapolis Park and Rec Board is going to come shut you down if you don't serve them at every. damn. party. As luck always seems to have it, I am standing at said table just as someone (usually an unhappily single woman wearing a tight dress too young for her) approaches, stops suddenly—as if seeing Jesus fresh from the tomb—and says coos squeals, "OhmygodIjustlovelemonbars!!!!!!" As you smile and say thank you, you catch me stage left rolling my eyes, which I deftly turn into a mini-stroke. Knowing what is now expected of me, I too take a lemon bar (which are not, by the way, all cut to the same size), close my eyes as if about to receive the wisdom of the ages, moan, "Mmmmm," and rub my tummy in a circular motion. As I wander off to find a plant to dump my plate into, I take a little bite and think to myself:

Why do your lemon bars suck?

The recipe is quite simple. That tender crumb crust? A little flour, some powdered sugar, a dash of salt (even if the recipe doesn't tell you to, just throw some in), and a whole lot of butter. You might make your first of several mistakes here. Perhaps you beat the ingredients within an inch of their lives, so that you've completely broken down all the molecules that need to make love during their time in the oven. Or maybe you press the mixture into the pan so hard that no air is left to form flaky layers as the butter melts out of the way. I don't know, but your crust is either tough and vaguely stale, or falling apart completely. And it usually tastes like flour.

The filling isn't much more difficult: beat a lot of sugar and eggs together until smooth. I'm beginning to understand that you have no idea what that means, and a good eight seconds of half-assed mixing seems adequate. But the eggs and sugar have to bind together, and they have to achieve some volume, and that takes some time, like over a minute (and that's with a KitchenAid stand mixer; I shudder to think of the results with your little gravy-encrusted hand mixer from the '70s). All you have left to do is carefully add the lemon juice, stir, sift some flour over the mixture and stir until incorporated. Even as I type, I know that "incorporated" has you throwing your hands in the air, dumping the mixture, flour globules and all, onto the crust (which you didn't bake long enough, by the way; it needs to turn golden brown on top or you're just going to have a rubbery membrane where the crust meets filling), and throw it all back in the oven. If I were a betting man, I'd guess you're on your third drink by now, and that the kitchen looks like hell.

Because you have no idea what "bake until filling is set" means, you do one of two things: you either take them out after exactly 30 minutes, regardless of the temperature of your particular oven, the elevation at which you live, the dew point, or the closing price of the Nikkei; or, just to make sure they're done, you let them bake until the top of the filling starts to turn brown (at which point you should simply pack your bags and request asylum in one of those countries that loves hosting deposed dictators).

All that's left to do is to sift powdered sugar on top of the bars, but you have to wait until they're cool, or you're left with an uneven mess of wet sugar. No one likes that.

The oven timer here at the group home has just beeped, so I need to go check on my lemon bars. I have never made them in my life, and really hope they turn out.

UPDATE: The lemon bars are fantastically good, and Foster Mom insisted on the bunnies.


  1. Huh. I had always assumed that lemon bars suck by their very nature (or, that not being a native Upper Mid-Westerner, I lacked the genetic make-up which would allow me to appreciate the inherent mediocrity of lemon bars). Feel free to bring one of yours over to my house, to change my mind.

  2. Heaven knows what you must say about people's cheese trays.

  3. OK, the bars are really wonderful. Certainly the right flavor, but also very much a perfect texture. They're quite delicate.

    And OK, yes, I did drop one on the carpet and it plopped squarely down on the goo side, and was rescued and eaten.

    And I have to say, the bunnies in that picture are adorable, and whoever thought of them should be thanked.

  4. PS My civil rights have been violated by your use of the secret security video of me trying to bake. You'll be hearing from my lawyer in the morning.

  5. uh ... thanks for the bunnies(?)

    Yes, even with carpet-fuzz the lemon bar was superb.


As always, civility reigns, but cleverness trumps.

They shall be called my disciples.